Complexities in Meeting Surface Water Quality Objectives in Union Bay

It is complicated and involves many parties – the landowners, the businesses, the Union Bay Improvement District, the Comox Valley regional district, Kensington Island Properties (KIP), the provincial and federal governments. What is going on in Union Bay in terms of needing to update the water system is a requirement by Island Health for all water systems that purvey potable water to meet the Surface Water Quality Objectives (formerly known as the 4-3-2-1 policy).

The source to tap path travelled by drinking water falls under the jurisdiction of all levels of government in Canada. Municipal governments are responsible for zoning and water supply and treatment. The provinces are responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the health regulations while the federal government is responsible for First Nation’s community water supply systems, coastal management and navigation, trans-boundary water management, and the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. While the federal government advises on water quality standards it is at the discretion of each province to establish and monitor their own water act and regulations.

Union Bay is a rural community of less than a 1,000 residents where water provision, fire protection and street lighting fall under the localized jurisdiction of an improvement district. Historically, Union Bay was a port community that received coal shipments from the nearby Village of Cumberland and the property that had been utilized during the coal shipping era was sold privately, eventually purchased by Kensington Island Properties. Although no development has occurred on the land since the coal mining era – the pursuit to do so has been in discussion for nearly two decades.

The concern for adequate water quality has now become the focal point in the discussion, and until there is a water treatment plant in operation, the KIP vision of a Union Bay with a golf course, revived marina and new homes will be stalled indefinitely.

Union Bay needs an overhaul of its water system, which is a result of more stringent water quality parameters, and the only way to achieve this is to build a water treatment plant. That kind of fiscal expenditure goes beyond what an improvement district can normally afford and would require a referendum prior to the order additional expenditures and taxes. In this particular case, KIP has stated they are prepared to pay for the construction of the required water treatment plant at no cost to landowners. This offer, if accepted, would supersede the improvement district’s need for a referendum as long as there is an Agreement in Principle allowing for KIP to proceed with their generous offer. However, this offer has been declined by the improvement district and a public debate has ensued.

Is it that easy? I attended the latest meeting hosted by the Kensington Island Properties and heard very clearly the crowd’s dissention with the elected officials and the support for KIP. Developer pays, residents don’t. Water treatment plant in place and Island Health is satisfied that the surface water quality objectives are met.

But, it isn’t that easy. There is an elected board in place that has the responsibility to monitor the fiscal management of the electorates’ funds and oversee the construction, operation and maintenance of a water system that meets Island Health standards. The Union Bay Improvement District is the water purveyor and it is their responsibility to provide potable water. They hold the water extraction license, and unique to most systems, the Union Bay Improvement District owns the source as well, Langley Lake. KIP wants to help relieve the financial burden caused by the imminent construction of a new plant in exchange for being able to materialize their vision of a revitalized Union Bay. Why would the elected board turn down a ‘free’ water treatment plant? Because nothing is free and this is a complex issue.

The Union Bay Improvement District and Kip signed a Water Infrastructure Agreement in 2011 that was to ensure upgrades to the water system would be completed, at the developer’s cost, by December 31, 2014. At the end of October 2014, an extension to this agreement was requested by KIP, which was declined by the Union Bay Improvement District for contractual reasons. KIP maintains an extension was necessary because the project had been impeded from proceeding due to government delays, but now that there was a remediation plan for the coal hills finally in agreement, they had the green light needed to proceed with the development.  A professionally-facilitated meeting is now being organized by the board so that landowners can come together to discuss all of the issues.

There are other issues at stake as well. A water treatment plant needs a site location, and the chosen site first needed to be released from its Crown Land tenure before the Union Bay Improvement District could construct a water treatment plant. As a part of the Crown Land grant application process, governments are to confirm whether there is any First Nation interest in the land. According to K’όmoks First Nation and the province, the land earmarked by the Union Bay Improvement District for the water treatment plant is now a part of a treaty land settlement discussion. The Crown Land Grant application has been halted until thorough consultation with KFN has been satisfied. Another piece of the puzzle is the remediation plan for the coal hills that has taken almost two decades to produce due to ‘government delays’ and ‘other unavoidable circumstances’, according to KIP. They have now reached an Agreement in Principle with the province and a third party to remediate the coal hills into parkland, yet, there is no timeline for completion other than a loose commitment to remediate along with the water system upgrades while the publically-traded third party involved remains a mystery due to a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

As a by-stander and former Union Bay resident, there appears to be two opposing sides that represent the elected body and the developer, both taking turns garnering public support. I personally think that the issue is more than just about water. It is about the democratic process and accountability to the electorate, the fiscal pressures on an improvement district to meet provincial regulations, and the community’s willingness to negotiate an exchange of altered (developed) landscape for ‘free’ infrastructure and parkland.

I also saw a lot of finger-pointing at the latest meeting and it left me with a sense of unease, wondering what the other unknowns are.  As I write this, I don’t know which way the pendulum will swing. It seems to be forgotten, or perhaps unknown, that there was once a time when support for the KIP development was extremely low and the debate landed in the Supreme Court, citing the lack of available water as due cause to stop the revitalization of Union Bay. I have been following this discussion since I was a teenager, and now armed with my Master’s in Coastal Resources and Water Management, I find this debate even more interesting. What is important is that all households and businesses in Union Bay are provided with potable water that adheres to Island Health standards and that the process to get there is done so with accountability and transparency by all parties involved.

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